Nothing Hardly Ever Happens In Colbyville, Vermont
Essays by Peter Miller
Most Vermonters who know of Colbyville-based Peter Miller and his work recognize him as the photographer who has captured black and white slices of a vanishing cross-section of our Green Mountain communities. His visually arresting photos, including a famous one of Fred Tuttle holding a photo of his father (and so on), have been captured in a number of books: Vermont People, Vermont Farm Women, and most recently, Vermont Gathering Places. Miller’s iconic photography has so worked its way into Vermont’s collective imagination that he was named Vermonter of the Year in 2006 by the Vermont State Legislature.
What many may not know about Peter Miller, however, is that the fellow is a fine writer, first honing his craft with LIFE magazine during the 1950s and 1960s, and then combining wordsmithing and shutterbugging ever since. And one couldn’t do better for an introduction to Miller’s writing than his new collection of essays entitled Nothing Hardly Ever Happens In Colbyville, Vermont.
First things first. Where is Colbyville?
Stand in the south corner of Waterbury Center’s Ben and Jerry’s parking lot, and toss a stone down the hill.
Bingo. You’ve struck the place, and perhaps, Miller’s house, in the process. Who new? Isn’t that Waterbury?
And this is a big theme in Miller’s writing – the ways in which “traditional” Vermont (poor, homespun, rural, hardscrabble – call it what you will) has been upstaged and gentrified by the imposition of “newer” Vermont, and the creative tensions that have resulted from this process. Consider Chunky Monkey. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream put Vermont on the map globally as an ice cream destination, made Messrs. B and J a mint, and forever cemented the Holstein in the popular public imagination as Vermont’s bovine of choice, particularly for milking, thanks to artist Woody Jackson’s iconic (I can’t get enough of that word) artistry on the side of ever one of those little pints. But Ben and Jerry’s arrival, of course, forever changed the destiny of little Colbyville, and, Miller subtly suggests, this story is perhaps a smaller metaphor for a much larger Vermont experience these past five decades or so, as tiny, rural, backwoods Green Mountain communities, comprised of hunters, fishers, trappers, farmers, loggers, and the like – has moved (or been dragged) into the modern (and post-modern age).
“Colbyville exists for two reasons,” writes Miller. “Its is beside the only road that heads north to Stowe, and there were two falls on Thatcher Brook, which is across the road from my house.” In Miller’s geographic musings, he underscores how quickly Vermont, in the latter half of the twentieth century, has moved from rural subsistence to global retail (at least, in some pockets of the state), as the tourism, skiing, recreational and related industries brought visitors, money and new businesses into play.
And yes, Miller is not entirely happy about all of this – and his photographs and essays reflect an almost-elegiac and sometimes very humorous “take” on this state of affairs. In one essay, he writes about discovering a suicide site while woodcock hunting. In another, he muses about the passing of Fred Tuttle, the famous “Man With A Plan” Vermonter’s funeral becoming a lens through which Miller considers the unique regionalism of Vermont’s rural heritage. In one of his best essays, one rejected by Vermont Life (too provocative, no doubt), entitled “I Poach: Confessions of a Duck Hunting Addict Gone Astray,” Miller writes of illegally hunting on a neighbor’s land with a friend, and their attempts to elude a gamekeeper, and I felt for several pages like I was Danny, the “champion of the world,” out with my father furtively tracking elusive wild game. My favorite essay, “Dear Folks At Orvis Repair,” recounts how Miller broke his fishing rod in an encounter with a…well, you gotta read the essay to find out what happens.
And that’s a big part of the fun in reading Miller – his essays are full of colorful characters, dry wit, and some not-so-subtle digs at what Vermont has become, even as he celebrates the Vermont that once was, still is, and will no doubt be again.